Back when I wasn’t going to church much, I found myself at Dana’s parents’ church in suburban Atlanta. There, I sat through worship, the sermon, mostly focused on how I was going to pay for the expenses in front of us. We were just getting our start and passing through on the way to Virginia. I’d left behind my job at the University of West Georgia and the moving truck was parked in my in-laws’ driveway. It was just a matter of days and we’d be headed to start life out together.
But moving had been more expensive than I had expected. At the moment, I had no income and it’d be a few weeks before I got paid for the first time in Virginia. I was worried about money, preoccupied most of the time I sat in the church through worship.
Afterwards, I went outside. I don’t even remember why; people were still inside the little cafe the church had in its entryway. But while standing against a pole, worried about money, a friend of my in-laws approached me. We made small talk for a second and then, suddenly, he grabbed my hand, pressed a wad a cash into it, and said, “the Holy Spirit said you need this.” And he walked off.
It was $200. More than enough to cover what I was worried about.
I couldn’t believe it. And here, almost twelve years later, the memory remains fresh in my head.
That was a blessing, received from someone I barely knew who was attentive to the Holy Spirit inside of him.
And that’s the point of our scripture this morning: blessings. As I read the story of Mary and her relative Elizabeth, I couldn’t help but think of this story, for it shares many similarities. Mary was fraught with concern over her suddenly pregnant condition, worried about her status as an unwed soon-to-be mother; she was highly distracted. The angel directed her to take the journey, not one undertaken easily, to go see a relative she probably didn’t know that well. But when she arrived, Elizabeth gave her a tremendous blessing. For Mary, it was renewal of her soul.
So let’s hear together that story. It comes just after Mary has been visited by the angel who announces she will give birth to Jesus, the same angel who tells her to go and visit Elizabeth. Hear now Luke 1:39-45
Like Mary, Elizabeth had become miraculously pregnant as well. An angel had visited her husband, Zechariah, to announce that Elizabeth, thought to be barren, would give birth to a son who would proclaim the coming of the Messiah. It’s in that pregnant state that Mary finds her, at home. When Mary arrives, the Holy Spirit inspires Elizabeth’s understanding: she gets it, she understands that the child Mary carries is greater than the child she herself carries, and that her child, who will grow up to be John the Baptist, will proclaim the coming of Mary’s child.
She gets it. Like the guy at my in-laws’ church, the Holy Spirit has spoken to her and she was attentive to its message. And so she is able to be a blessing to Mary. She offers understanding, which helps Mary see the forest for the trees. She offers inspiration, in having a similar burden. Which means she can offer companionship. Mary might have felt alone, but no longer: they have each other. God has brought them together and, together, they see better what God was doing in their midst. They have clearer vision.
Which is part of why I remember that moment at Dana’s parents’ church so distinctly: I haven’t been able to forget the power of the Holy Spirit working through that man’s life. I had clearer vision of what God was doing in my midst, of how God operates in the world; I recognized better that from God’s band we receive blessing upon blessing.
Such was the case a year or so later as I sat in a class. This particular class was studying group therapy, a part of my counseling training. In it, we had a particularly powerful moment of class one day that, unbeknownst to me, inspired my professor. He and I had, without meaning to, formed a bit of a bond, especially over Harry Truman. My professor, Jack Presbury, had grown up in Missouri and was invited to help set up Truman’s presidential library as an undergraduate student. We shared an affinity for President Truman.
One cold December day, after the final had been taken, the class was over, and I was wrapping things up in my graduate assistantship position, I found a large manilla interoffice envelope stuffed in my box. Inside was a first edition set of Truman’s two volume memoirs. Inside the front cover of the first volume, I found this note:
“Ted, these books were given to me many years ago. It would please me to think that you will carry them on with you in years to come. Fondly, Jack.”
I’ve never forgotten that gift. The two volumes have sat prominently somewhere in my office ever since that day in December of 2008. I experienced a blessing through his generous and thoughtful gift.
When have you experienced a powerful blessing from someone else? One that captured your imagination and still warms your heart? Perhaps Christmases of old come to mind where you experienced a blessing from a cherished family time together, or when you received a significant gift, or when you really felt the warmth and love from a relative. Whatever you’re thinking of right now, those memories don’t fade easily. The blessings we receive are powerful, for they inspire joy in our hearts and awareness of the Holy Spirit’s presence among us.
When we receive a blessing, our hearts and souls marvel at the wonder of what has been done for us. We experience tremendous happiness, what we rightfully call joy, a transcendent sense of gratitude and gladness all wrapped up together. We are better attuned to what God is doing in our midst because receiving a blessing brings us closer to God’s heart. Through the actions of others who have blessed us, we have recognized the Holy Spirit, we have felt the warmth of God’s love, we know better the joyful spirit that is our God.
For Mary, the blessing she received from Elizabeth, who gave her the gifts of joy and companionship, caused her to recognize the great thing God was doing through her. She had sudden, inspired, understanding of what Jesus would mean for the world. Upon receiving blessing from Elizabeth, Mary springs forth with joyful song, one long remembered by history. Her Magnificat, as it is called, is one of the most celebrated parts of all of scripture. After receiving blessing from Elizabeth, she sings a song of blessing; acknowledging how God has blessed her and how through her God will bless others. Mary now sees she is blessed to be a blessing.
Blessings grant us vision of what God is doing among us. Blessings instill in our hearts tremendous joy that undergirds our lives on this earth. Blessings cause us to experience the abundant love of God in the midst of a world that gives us so much reason to despair.
We have all received blessings. I’m sure your mind has pulled up memories of blessings of the past. We are all blessed.
And because we are blessed, we can be a blessing to others.
Elizabeth is a great example of that old biblical principle that goes back to Abraham, as Mary herself noted: we are blessed to be a blessing. God’s blessing, like any good gift, is meant to be shared. God grants us blessings and then asks that we go and share that blessing with others.
The blessing of the Holy Spirit who lives within us is the channel through which we go and give blessings to others. It prompts us, just like the member of Dana’s parents’ church, just like with Elizabeth. When we listen and respond, we have the power to be a tremendous blessing to others, sometimes without meaning to.
Consider that I imagine the man who gave me the $200 has long forgotten that he did so. I haven’t spoken to Jack Presbury in years, so I have no idea if he even remembers me. Elizabeth blessed Mary as she arrived, but Elizabeth could not have known that she would be such a blessing to Mary; she had no idea what the Holy Spirit would accomplish through her actions. She only knew she was blessed to be a blessing.
On Monday, I received in the mail a card that was addressed this way: Eastman First United Methodist Church, c/o Reverend Ted Goshorn. Eastman, GA 31023.” It was stamped, but it was missing one crucial piece of information: our P.O. Box or street address. And yet, thanks to the meticulous work of our post office, it made its way to me.
It was a card from one of the recipients of the food boxes we gave at Thanksgiving. Inside was a simple message of gratitude from someone blessed by our actions. She recognized her blessing and decided to bless us by sending a thank you note. She was blessed to be a blessing, just as we were blessed to be a blessing by giving of our resources to our holiday food box ministry.
A few weeks prior, I sat in a chair, super hot and thirsty from having jumped and run for over an hour with the youth at Sky Zone. I’d had one gatorade but declared that I thought I might need to get up and get another one. While I sat and chatted, one of the youth got up and soon returned with another gatorade, having purchased it just for me. She was blessed to be a blessing, and her generosity touched my spirit.
We are all blessed. In so many ways, we have received the abundance of God in our lives. As Leigh’s children’s sermon illustrated last week demonstrated, we’re in the minority of the world that has decent housing. At a base level, we’re blessed by our homes and our transportation and our access to food. We’re also blessed by each other, a fact that was evident to me Tuesday night as Dana and I attended a small group’s progressive Christmas party. We were blessed to have been included and blessed by the joy and strength of their fellowship.
We are all blessed, in so many ways. And because we are blessed, we can go and offer blessing to the world. All it takes is following that little voice inside of us that asks us to do something kind. All it takes is listening to the Holy Spirit.
It might be writing a thank you note. It might be giving a gift of some sort. It might be saying a kind word when it feels awkward to do so. It could be anything rather simple. In my experience, when I have followed that little voice telling me to do something kind, it has always felt a little weird to me. I’ve asked myself, “why do that?” Or “what’s so important about doing that?” But when I’ve followed, the person who has received my note, gift, or kind word has often said it was just what they needed at that moment. They’ve been touched far beyond what I could have imagined.
That’s the power of the Holy Spirit, just as it spoke to Elizabeth, telling her of the significance of their children and blessing Mary with her words and presence. We are blessed to be a blessing, but not that we know exactly the blessing we’ll be giving to others; all we know is that God has blessed us and we can go and give blessings to others through simple acts that become extraordinary blessings to the recipient.
This week, ask yourself how you’re blessed. Then ask yourself how you can give of that blessing to others. This Christmas season, as we give gifts and celebrate the joy of the season together, how are you blessed? How can you be a blessing to others? What is the Holy Spirit asking of you?
It’s easy to think of what we don’t have this time of year and what we thus hope will be under the tree. It’s easy to feel obligation, rather than blessing, as we buy gifts for everyone on our list. But we are blessed to be a blessing. From God’s hand, we have received blessing upon blessing. The question is if we are first counting our blessings and, second, if we are following the holy spirit’s call to bless others? Do you know today, with joy, that you are blessed to be a blessing?
Hear these words, and let them be the prayer of your soul, for they are true of us, just as they were true of Mary:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.